Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thrill of the chase

Why can chasing after guitars on eBay and Craiglist sometimes be more fun than playing them?

There's a 1979 Gibson SG Custom out there that has my name all over it. Rare as hens' teeth, and surprisingly affordable despite that. But I shouldn't spend the money. No, I really shouldn't. Really...

In truth, I already have too damned many geetars. If I end up buying that one, or another high-end SG, I will have to start selling some stuff. Not so much for the money, but just because I don't have any more room in my dismal little studio to put them. You can only play one at a time. ;)

The thing I hate most about selling guitars is not the loss of them--I won't sell one anymore that I truly treasure--but instead the whole process of eBay listing, annoying buyers, PayPal fraud anxiety, shipping hassle, etc. Every time I sell a guitar on eBay, I thank my lucky stars I didn't go into the retail business.

On a more creative note (or non-creative), I've been playing a lot and getting my chops back after a bit of a layoff, but I'm not really feeling the creative urge at the moment. What I really need to do is get some percussion groove going and just play a bunch of something over it. It'll happen.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I'm still here...

Nope, haven't abandoned the blog or this project. I just had a busy, crazy time last week and have been exhausted. I haven't actually *produced* any music, but I managed to *consume* a lot of it. I saw the band Yes twice within the span of a week, and also went to see Symphony X as well. Not nearly enough sleep was had during that period.

I also played a whole bunch of Gibson SGs at various stores this past weekend, because I'm on a big SG kick at the moment. A couple of months ago, I got a knockoff version of a '61 SG Custom, made by ESP in Japan, but the damned thing, like all the early '60s SGs (and the recent versions that have gone back to those specs) are neck-heavy as hell. Let go of the neck while you're wearing the guitar on a strap, and the damned thing dives right for the floor.

Gibson modified the design in the '70s and '80s to have the neck set further into the body, and that presumably makes the guitar balance better. With that in mind, I've purchased an '86 Gibson SG Special from a dealer in New Hampshire and will take delivery within the next week or so. It's a cheapo variant of the SG, and if I like that one, I'll probably get a more upscale version from that same era. They were all over the stores when I was a young guitar slinger, but I was purely a Les Paul guy back then. I didn't realize just how round and warm the SG tone can be, but still with some bite. The first thing most people associate an SG with is the scrawny, brittle tone that Angus Young of AC/DC gets. But you can get a very liquidy tone out of it if that's what you want--with less of the brightness that a Les Paul has. Very different animals, even if made by the same company. Here's a pic of the guitar I bought. It's very RED:

1986 Gibson SG front

1986 Gibson SG back

Here is my ESP Edwards knockoff of the '61 SG Custom. See if you can spot the structural differences where the neck meets the body:



It's crazy that such a small thing can make all the difference, but playing a guitar that doesn't hang properly from a strap is a very uncomfortable experience. The long-ago Gibson designers must have been having a few too many martinis with their lunches in 1960-61 when they designed that puppy to replace the Les Paul, which went out of production for several years. The original '61 SG's neck joint was so fragile (not a large point of contact with the body) that the guitars started falling apart right away, and Gibson was faced with massive warranty claims. They spent the next 10 years continually redesigning the SG, and finally settled on a design that lasted for basically 20 years--until the vintage guitar craze hit in the early '90s, and the dunderheads at Gibson decided it would be a good idea to make the SG all vintage-y and craptacular again. The original SGs play and sound fantastic (as does my ESP knockoff), but the balance problem is a killer.

Note, however, that I don't know for a fact that the '86 with the deeper neck joint will actually balance any better. I'm basing that hope solely on years of reading about these guitars and playing many guitars of different types. We'll see in a week or so, I guess.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


My wife and I went to see AC/DC tonight at the Verizon Center in Washington DC. Great show! This is the first time I've ever seen them live, which is kind of sad considering that I bought Back in Black when it first came out in 1980. It was one of the first five or so rock albums that I ever bought. I may even still have that original LP somewhere, though I also have the most recent remastered CD version.

The band isn't quite as energetic now as they were back in the day, based on the footage I've seen. But they still put on a seriously high-energy show. How the hell Angus Young keeps running around the stage like a madman at his age is beyond me. I'm 12 years younger than Angus, and I can barely get out of bed some mornings!

My wife made a good point after the show: songs like "Back in Black" and "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" are so iconic, that it's almost weird to actually see the band playing them in front of you.

And what great songs--the show was packed with the sort of classic hard rock that never sounds dated or out of style. Even the songs from their new album Black Ice were very good. I haven't liked any new AC/DC album in a long, long time, but the songs from this one sound damned good.

Brian Johnson is a better frontman than I thought he'd be, though I'll always think of AC/DC, at heart, as being centered around the late Bon Scott's menacing snarl:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What I did with my day off

I had the day off work on Tuesday for the Veteran's Day holiday. Did I record anything? No. Did I play guitar at all? No. What the hell did I do, then? Well, I did a lot of work on arranging my studio properly. It has been in a state of unfinished chaos for weeks, after I got a Roland V-Drum electronic kit and had to tear up the room to find space for it. Folks, I live in a dismal little cave.

With my little bout of housekeeping today, hopefully I'm closer to building an atmosphere more conducive to creativity. I've got some ideas percolating.

Coinciding with my acquisition of the Agile 12-string electric this past weekend, I've been listening to a bunch of '70s-era Genesis (back when they didn't suck). The Trick of the Tail album, in particular, has been in my CD player regularly. This was the first album after Peter Gabriel left the band and Phil Collins took over on vocals. Believe it or not, they made it two whole albums before the "Phil Collins suck factor" took over. That era of Genesis featured lots of 12-string electric from both lead guitarist Steve Hackett and bassist/rhythm guitarist Mike Rutherford (who discovered his own suck factor some years later with Mike & the Mechanics).

Here is the title track from Trick of the Tail, which is one of the poppier tracks on the album but also a longtime favorite of mine. Note the big ol' bushy beard on Phil Collins. Yes, he was a prog musician at one time, and a damned good one. Really.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

12-string interlude

No big fancy posts about my grand scheme today. I picked up a 12-string electric guitar this afternoon and have been mucking around on it since. Because I don't have a camera in the house at the moment, here is the web page for the model I got:

Agile AS-820 12-string electric

For me, 12-string electric is very evocative of '70s prog, and I think my next recording will be a moody, Pink Floydian thing. I've already got a little 12-string part mapped out for it. Get your bongs ready...

What is this "album" you speak of?

Here are a few thoughts about why I'm doing a blog format instead of the usual musician's web site.

I grew up in the era of the LP. A package that came with a big ol' piece of cardboard artwork in addition to the music. I vividly recall reading all the liner notes to such albums as Moving Pictures by Rush and Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin. The music was the main point, but the package that I bought at the record store was so much more than that.

This was greatly diminished by the arrival of the CD and its shrunken packaging. It has largely disappeared altogether in the age of the iPod.

Problem is, the total experience that I felt contemplating the little pictures in the Physical Graffiti inner sleeve doesn't translate to the era of disposable mp3 music. You kids and your background musical need to be immersed in something bigger and more mysterious.

I'm hoping to create something larger than just a bunch of musical noise. What Led Zeppelin never did was text. Does anyone want prose along with their music? Heck if I know. But it ain't costing you or me a dime, so bear with me. You didn't get to read real-time accounts of the Rolling Stones trying to get it together to record an album did you? So maybe I'm adding some kind of value. Somehow.

The artwork is the final piece of the puzzle. I have a copy of Adobe Illustrator on my computer, along with a bunch of raw artistic ambition. Why create album artwork when you can create song artwork? I'm planning to create some kind of image to go along with each piece of music. One Day in August popped out of my subconscious before I could come up with such a plan, so it will have a plain, yellow-on-black cover, rather than actual artwork.

Speaking of covers, shouldn't I have ordered One Day in August to be pressed into CD packages by now? Maybe I should do that. Or should I? To be continued...

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Explained in November, part II

Ok, I promised a little more explanation on what inspired me to do a 48-minute improvisation on One Day in August. No technical mumbo jumbo in this post, just a bunch of YouTube.

First and foremost, my guitar playing on this piece was chiefly inspired by Frank Zappa. Anyone who knows his style probably figured that out right away, but for the rest of you, here's some prime Zappa guitar playing from Halloween 1977 at the Palladium in New York. And ladies, he's shirtless!

Frank's 1981 album Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar is one of my Top Five. Three LPs/CDs of his live guitar solos, removed from their original context as links between songs and presented as pieces of beauty in their own right. Since I've gotten away from heavy metal and back towards fusion jazz, the Zappa influence has reemerged in my playing big time, and it's all over One Day in August.

The second big influence for me was saxophonist John Coltrane. I will be posting a lot in the future about Coltrane's influence on me as a musician, but for now, just enjoy this beautiful example of the best improvising musician who ever lived. As a bonus, it features the astounding piano playing of McCoy Tyner, who is another big influence on me. More about him later, too.

Here's another clip of live Coltrane, from the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival. No video to go along with it, but just some of the most amazing soprano saxophone ever. Coltrane in full flight makes me want to go break all the boundaries, and I think you can hear a little of that on One Day in August. Not that I come anywhere near Coltrane.

These videos explain my musical inspiration more than words ever could. Tomorrow, I'm going to try and explain how One Day in August fits into my overall musical goals, which would be a very good transition back to explaining what the hell it is I'm doing with this web site and with a bunch of recording equipment in what used to be our spare bedroom

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Recorded in August, explained in November

How does one explain the rationale behind a 48-minute piece of music that contains nothing but improvisation and was recorded in a single day? Madness? Self-indulgence? Impatience? Yes.

One Day in August, which you can stream or download at my Music V2 site (linked in the list to the right), as well as the excerpt embedded in the post below, was recorded as just another goofy idea on Monday, August 25, 2008. I took the day off as part of a four-day weekend to celebrate my birthday. Since the wife was at work, I had all day to myself, a studio packed with musical equipment, and a couple of fancy new Heritage guitars that I wanted to record. It was either that or surf the Web all day...

I had been wanting to record a long-form improvisation ever since I was first exposed to the work of avante-garde jazz musician Sam Rivers, who has been a major inspiration to me in the last year or so. In the '70s, Rivers was known for his trio performances, in which he would perform extended improvisations on tenor sax, soprano sax, flute and piano over a pulse-oriented rhythm section, frequently with Dave Holland on stand-up bass and Barry Altschul on drums. The rhythm section would keep going for 30+ minutes, and Rivers would pick up and put down instruments as he felt necessary.

The approach I used for One Day is not nearly as avante-garde as Rivers' work, however. But I approached it from the perspective of near-total freedom. The only prep work I did was to set MIDI tempos in my digital recorder (Korg D3200) for a few changes throughout, practice a couple of initial funk drumpad approaches to get things going, and work up a quick chord progression (Amaj7 - Asus4 add 6) to start from. That progression reminds me a little of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir, but it's a fun one. I stay more within range of regular tonality than most free-jazz musicians do, but there are some moments of chaos in there.

I first recorded the lower drum kit (kick, snare, toms) along with the click track provided by the MIDI tempo map. The map was done in 4/4 time, but I used a simple click and was thereby free to drop and add beats as I felt them...or screwed up. ;) Lots of, shall we say, "flexible" timekeeping. Hey, I'm just a guitarist.

After I recorded the lower kit, I overdubbed the cymbals. This is difficult to do, because a real drummer obviously has only four limbs and makes everything fit together in real time. My overdubbing technique makes it possible to play drum/cymbal combinations that are physically impossible in real life, and the improvisational and long-form nature of the music means that I have a hard time anticipating on cymbals what I did on the lower kit, especially with drum fills where the cymbals usually drop out. So, it's goofed-up from the start. But such it the flawed beauty of life. Part of the challenge of being an improvisational recording artist is living with the results.

From there, the fun part started. I LOVE playing bass guitar. I'm no Stanley Clarke, but there's a physicality involved with bass that the more dainty guitar can't give you. You feel it or you don't. I think I was feeling it on August 25, and I'm happy with the bass here. It's not perfect, but you can hear the fusion of funk and hard rock bass legends that have inspired me. Think Alphonso Johnson meets Geezer Butler. I recorded the bass--a Conklin Groove Tools 5-string--into my Fractal Audio Axe-FX guitar preamp (used on all non-drum tracks on this piece) and then direct into the mixing board. The newer firmware for the Axe-FX contains a bass speaker cabinet simulation that allows wonderful bass guitar recordings, I believe.

Next, came the clean rhythm guitar, recorded on my homemade parts stratocaster using the neck and middle pickups. This particular instrument is wonderfully resonant and alive, and you just can't get a bad sound out of the damned thing. I started with the above-mentioned chord progression in a clickety-clack funk rhythm. From there, I went all kinds of places with it for 48 minutes, just experimenting with different chord forms and movement. I really was feeling it more than thinking it. I'm sure every guitar teacher on Earth would be horrified. :)

From there, three separate tracks of lead guitar, going in and out as I felt it. The initial lead track was recorded on my Heritage H-157 Black Beauty, which gives an intense, heavy sound. At about 5:00, the Heritage H-555 semi-hollow comes in with a slightly more mellow sound, using an Axe-FX setting with an automatic 'wah-wah' feel. Thirdly, my ESP Mirage Custom started providing some whammy-bar madness at about 16:30, in a manner reminiscent of Vernon Reid, the guitarist from Living Colour.

Part of my original intent was to have all three lead guitars blasting away at once, in something of an electric tribute to Ornette Coleman's seminal Free Jazz album. There were several sections I recorded that way, but I ultimately chickened out in the final mix and had only one lead guitar going at a time, for the most part. I felt the music breathed better with one-at-a-time, and the interplay between the three wasn't as consistently good as I had wanted.

That's about it for the recording process. I'll write some more about One Day in August tomorrow, hopefully going a little bit less technical and a little deeper into the inspiration behind it.

It depends on how you define "tomorrow"

Haha, sorry about not posting more about One Day in August on Monday, as I had promised. I got distracted by football on Monday evening and by the election yesterday. Neither of which I'm going to blog about, by the way. There are plenty of other places to read about that crap.

I will definitely post some stuff this evening, however.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Greetings from the Fusion Planet

Welcome to the inaugural posting on the new blog for my music project, Council of One. Since it's late as hell here where I'm situated (a mile or so from the Pentagon, in an undisclosed location), I'm going to try and keep this short. I'll endeavor over the next several days to better explain just what the hell I'm trying to do with this little blog, and why.

For now, let's just say that I want to get away from the traditional role of a musician and incorporate music, words and visual art into something approaching a seamless entity. The reader will get: (1) a day-by-day account of my workings as a musician, (2) links and information on how to obtain my music--for free!, (3) visual art that will go along with the music, functioning hopefully as a 21st Century version of the LP covers us old-timers used to stare at for hours while we listened to the albums they contained, and (4) a whole bunch of take-'em-or-leave-'em opinions about good music, bad music, and the ways music is made and sold.

I've launched this blog to coincide with the release of my new album, One Day in August. I say "album," but in reality it's a single 48-minute piece of music. Totally improvised. Lots of screaming guitar. No vocals.

Not scared off yet? Well then, be my guest and download it for yourself. I encourage you to listen to it, share it with your friends and enemies, and comment about it right here on this blog.

Here is an excerpt, the opening 7 1/2 minutes of the piece. Press "play" to stream it right here, or click the area above the player to go to my Soundclick page and download it:

If you want to download the entire 48 minutes, go to the Council of One page at and click on the icon under "Featured Media."

I'll talk more about One Day in August tomorrow.